Mahmoud Salem, one of the Egyptian veterans of the 18 days in Tahrir Square, has some useful advise for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and it is very good advice. “Learn from our failure,” he says, and lists eight points that match my own impressions and (some) published points. I list them here, with a few quotes. Go to the article to read the full text.
1. Do not count on the international community’s support. “The international community espouses many platitudes it never actually enforces or backs for all sorts of realist considerations — and being on China’s bad side is something no American leader can countenance.”
2. The world’s attention span is very limited. “You have the world’s attention now. Soon very few people will care. Now is the time to communicate your message.”
3. Do not allow the government to manipulate you. “If you can’t define who you are, the government will define it for you. They will try and turn the most obnoxious and radical of protestors into the face of your movement. This becomes especially true if your protest drags on, inconveniencing the same people whose support you desperately need. You then lose control of the message — and it’s surprisingly easy for the government to shift focus to a side issue the government created or is happy to exploit.” “Another favorite government tactic is publicly calling for dialogue, while simultaneously arranging for mobs to physically attack protestors — thus forcing demonstrators to refuse dialogue and appear unreasonable, as seemed to happen on Oct. 3 in Hong Kong. The government looks reasonable, and you look unreasonable and thuggish.”
4. Know who is with you on the local level. “One of the problems of the Jan. 25 movement was that its leaders didn’t bother to find out which locals — people living in the same building, or on the same street — supported their cause.”
5. Do not allow internal or external forces to separate you from the people. “While you may be fighting for the rights of Hong Kong citizens, many of your fellow citizens might not want to fight. The government will use that to paint you as ‘different,’ ‘foreign-funded,’ or ‘extremist,’ to create a divide between you and the rest of the people.”
6. Do not count on your opponent to think rationally. “Sure, massacring you in the streets may mean that they could lose face and tarnish their reputation, but Beijing will do whatever it needs to maintain power in Hong Kong”
7. Abandon all hope. “Hope is fleeting and going into battle with a heightened sense of expectation is a surefire path to defeat. Determination wins wars, not hope. And whether you like it or not, yours may end in a week, a month, even a decade.”
8. Aim for more, but know what to settle for. “Don’t be ashamed by settling; it’s better than losing everything.”
Salem’s points are all cogent. Much as armchair activists are charmed by the romance of revolution in the streets, it rarely results in liberation. It works, as it did in Prague in 1989, when conditions are exactly right and there are years of intelligent preparation behind it. But most of the time it fails, or ushers in either new brutal masters or re-invigorated old ones. Poorly organized protesters who succeed in overthrowing a regime will quickly find themselves under the thumb of some totalitarian movement that is well organized. Those who don’t succeed will be quickly forgotten by a world that actually doesn’t give a fuck about anybody’s freedom — including their own — as long as the fuel keeps pouring into their cars and they can get cheap tube socks at Walmart. Those who imagined that “social media” would change the game were over-optimistic. It was a temporary advantage that repressive regimes soon met with effective counter-strategies. No protesters could have been more idealistic or sincere than the ones who met in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But minutes after they were massacred, their murderers were clinking champagne glasses with emissaries from George H. W. Bush. Now the brutal butchers are welcome in every glamour joint in the world, their bums are kissed and licked by every government on the planet (most disgustingly, and with the most craven cowardice, by our Conservative Prime Minister in Canada), and they have succeeded in effectively erasing the event from history.
It takes more than protests to win freedom.